Old Growth

Dusk approaches. The hill is windless and quiet. Moorhens carefully crosshatch the surface of the pool wrinkling the inverted images of  squall-clouds that have been gathering for an hour. A faint curtain of rain closes across the mountains twenty miles away. I am sitting dazed after another week of hospital appointments, results and procedures. I want to disappear into the silence of water, the patterns of droplets dripping from the leaves. There is something beyond the mathematics of the world that I will always reach for and never touch. But now I hear them and I’m awake, their calls short and splintered, not the long trailing notes I usually listen to from a distance. They are near. Now they rise. All five of them. They have brought bad news. Their nests have failed again. 

Only a few hours ago we were standing in an oak wood forty miles from here, sheltering from a hail storm (It is June, the winter of summer). A male redstart flew in front of us and landed on a nearby branch, answering an urgent call from its chick which hopped along the branch above. The chick was fed and the parent bird waited, on alert, while we stood too close to its needy offspring. These birds had the shelter of a hundred-acre wood, undisturbed by livestock and with only the occasional walker to worry about.  The curlews aren’t so lucky, they need undisturbed ground to breed. For a few more days, perhaps a week, they will stay here to feed and I’ll see them flying overhead calling to each other with those cries as long and curved as their beaks. Then they will head back to the coasts to brave another winter. This place will drain to its dregs. 

It’s hard in a land like this to ignore the wounds. A few miles south the Black Mountains lie like corpses awaiting autopsies. They’re soft-bodied mountains, made of stone you can split with your fingers. As the falling light striates their sides the scars and slashes show. The ground here is so easy to injure. Every footstep makes a mark, the twin almonds made by sheep, the moon-marks of the ponies, my own boot treads left days ago, overprinting the splayed twigs of a raven’s feet. Perhaps it’s the way I’m tuned, or untuned. I have a growing sense of the impoverishment happening everywhere. This little country I live in was one of the focal points from which the great wave of destruction radiated across the earth. Obscured by the mountains, but not far away, are the coal hills, the places that were hollowed and scoured for the minerals that fuelled the industrial revolution. The hills have mourned too long. They need new life. 

There is a place very far from here that I’ve been thinking about a lot, though it’s a place I’ll probably never see. It is an area roughly the same size as Wales and is on the same latitude. Like Wales it faces west to an ocean and is sheltered by a large island. Like Wales it is a place of mountains and rivers. Unlike Wales it is a place dominated by old growth forest, the last great temperate rainforest on earth. The closest I’ve been to the Great Bear Rainforest was a drive into British Columbia almost twenty years ago. I remember a track climbing through pines to a mountain lake at the foot of a calving glacier. The lake was silver-blue, opaque with sediment. At its edge stranded icebergs stood like giant toadstools. Every half hour or so another section calved away, forming waves that crossed the surface of the water, languid as sleepy bears. As they reached the edge water surged up the mica-spangled beach and licked another layer from the undersides of each berg. This was a landscape visibly being made, valleys chiselled from mountains, lush forest growing on pure meltwater. It was a place to disappear within, everything smothered by trees, ice and snow. A footprint wouldn’t last long before it was filled in or grown over. 

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to cougars, wolves, black bears, spirit bears and grizzly bears, otters, mink, martins, bald eagles, marbled murrelets, blue herons, salamanders. Coho, chum, chinook, pink, sockeye and steelhead salmon have bred in such huge numbers that their rotting carcasses determined the success of the summer growing season. The old trees as far as five hundred metres from the stream-bank contain marine minerals in their growth rings. A recent survey discovered fifteen thousand new species of invertebrates there. When you’re surrounded by a place so alive your own life shape-shifts. In rainforests I’ve come face-to-face with mountain gorillas and timber wolves. We’ve stared each other in the eyes, recognised our common ancestors, and wished each other good luck on the journey into our next forms.

From up here you can see the thin silver line of water which was once a great salmon river. Fifty pound fish were caught regularly on the River Wye half a century ago and once a dead specimen was discovered that weighed eighty pounds. I’ve read this but it’s hard to absorb when I sit every year for many hours-long sessions, waiting for salmon at a nearby leap. In ten years I’ve seen two small and one medium-sized fish. I’ve kayaked miles downstream and seen nothing more than a few trout, though the river is crystal clear. 

It’s seventeen years since we moved to this valley. Our garden was already a jungle then. We’ve dug a couple of ponds, some vegetable beds, planted fruit trees, and abandoned them all to the duckweed, ash saplings, brambles and nettles that seemed to be insulted at our initial attempts to tame the place. So we’ve learned to stop taming. We’re surrounded by fields that are bitten down to a centimetre of grass by the sheep. The wood we can see from the kitchen window is a conifer plantation so densely planted that it contains no understory. On the flood plain in the valley bottom potatoes are planted in arcing lines half a mile long. Our home has become a tiny island amidst all this tameness, a place for wild things. Our walls are now almost completely clad with ivy and honeysuckle. We let the new growth each year push inside the house and don’t cut it back until the windows won’t close. Spiders are welcome. This summer we have resident bats and a wasp’s nest is being built inches from my son’s bedroom window. Wildflowers have colonised the back garden, edging in from the old hedge. Bluebells were first to appear, a couple of clumps forming here and there. Then the clumps merged and they were joined by cowslips, red campion, wood violets, celandine, tutsan. Wild strawberries grow beneath the trees. Here and there, sprouting from gaps in the garden walls, or pushing out from shady corners there are hart’s tongue ferns, vivid green and wet to the touch, their forms almost animal. Herb robert has rooted everywhere, in the flower beds, in plant pots, in cracks in the paving stones. It grows particularly densely close to the front and back doors. One of the forgotten names for the herb in this part of Wales is cancer weed. It contains compounds which have been proven to slow the spread of cancer by facilitating the oxygenation of cells. It was used all over Europe as a treatment historically. Like the rainforest, our third of an acre has become a place for medicines to grow.

A one centimetre tumour can take years to develop. Cells malfunction slowly, sub-dividing and colonising the darkness of the body like night flowers, pushing out tendrils, sending down roots. A stage one cancer is as small as a seed and causes no symptoms if it’s buried in the breast. Julia was lucky she had a mammogram early, just before her fiftieth birthday. It could have been another three years before she was called in for a check up and by then the cancer would have spread. The treatment is like weed removal, cutting out, uprooting and then burning the surrounding area to make sure the remnants have been destroyed. Perhaps Herb Robert will help, if we learn how it’s used. I think it’s growing at our door because it knows it’s needed, which is the reason why all wild things grow. 

The remnants of a great temperate rainforest surround us here, but they’re hard to find. Great oaks, half a millennia and more in age, stand inconspicuously in tiny woods and sheep pastures. Most people don’t know they’re there. Two fields away is a tree I visit often. When my boys were little they used to talk to it and leave it gifts. It can only be found by using a route that very few people know about. You have to sneak through someone’s garden, climb a narrow, overgrown path, clamber over rickety gates and through waist high nettles. The tree is an island ecosystem, home to its own forest of ferns and fungi, beetles and birds. It is in its senescence now, but still healthy, though it is surrounded by its own fallen branches. I won’t describe it further. It’s almost impossible to put trees into words. I’ve found that you can only describe them better in pigment or light, through a painting or photograph. I once spent a whole winter drawing the old tree, forcing myself to work with a black biro so each mark I made was as small as possible, no broad strokes or fields of tone allowed. I had to be deliberate and accurate. The first few weeks were excruciatingly difficult, and deadly dull, working over a tiny area where the first low branch intersected with the trunk. Then, very slowly, my hand started to feel its way into the patterns and textures and my eye became tuned to the rhythm of the trees growth. After that winter every oak tree I passed, old or young, took on a personality. Some seemed confident and open, others withdrawn, secretive. Many invited me in with a woody warmth, a few told me to be on my way. This lasted several months until, having put my pens away, I lost the connection and once again saw only trees.

Two miles away, over the English border there are many other old oaks standing sentinel in fields I pass on the way to work. On a five mile stretch of road there are more than fifty old trees, all of which have a similar appearance. They are called stag-heads. Dead branches protrude above the canopy like antlers. This is a symptom of a disease called chronic oak decline. Like cancer it attacks the body of the tree gradually, debilitating it over a period of years. There is no single pathogen and no known cure. Some trees recover, some don’t. It is thought that poor soil fertility, the presence of chemicals and severe weather instigates the disease. Once the tree is weakened it is vulnerable to attacks from fungi, insects and bacteria. 

Our wounds are everywhere, on the bare mountain tops, along the empty rivers, in the crowns of dying trees, and on our own scarred bodies. It feels to me sometimes that, like the curlews, life is just clinging on. The scientists tells us that greater losses are on the way, if we continue to live as we do, which means there’s still time for us to find paths through this dark forest. We should set out by letting the wild things grow, otherwise there may not be wild salmon when my children reach my age. The old oaks could be toppled and lying in the fields, their great trunks exposed to show that, once upon a time, there were beings who lived for a thousand years.